Figuring out how to stop a toddler from hitting is no easy task! And if you are a first time mom, it’s even more shocking. Each of my kids went through an experimental toddler hitting and biting phase around 20 months. Instead of falling off my chair in shock that my perfect baby could do something so mean, I said, “It has begun” and got to work.
This is very normal, and I’m going to share how to stop a toddler from hitting, biting, and pushing that has worked very well for us with all 3 kids.
The bad news is you won’t be off the hook by tomorrow. The good news is, the hitting only lasted for about a month with each of our kids.
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Your toddler understands you perfectly and is capable of learning self control
There is a lot of information out there about how much your child understands under age 2. I know as a first time parent I was often confused about how much my son could understand because he was a late talker.
One of the biggest shockers to me as a mom was realizing that kids can understand WAY more than we think, and they can definitely understand tone and body language.
One day I asked my newly walking toddler to put a dirty shirt in the laundry basket (curious to see if he could understand those directions) and he ran to the back of the hallway and did it! This was way before he could talk.
My point here is that by the time your child starts hitting, they can understand most of what you say and you can use tone and facial expression to make your words more clear.
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Step 1. Remove your toddler and tell them hitting is not safe.
If you’re a mom, you know that an 18 month or 2 year old has a tiny attention span. Which means you have to deal with hitting/biting/shoving that instant.
You can’t wait one minute. Or until you get home. Because they have already forgotten what you are talking about. Remove them from the situation to talk to them, or hold them if needed.
When our kids have tried hitting or biting (usually sometime between 18 months – 2 years) we hold their arm and tell them, “No, you can’t hit. That’s not safe. Show me gentle!” I use this phrase a LOT for about 1 month and then it’s pretty much done.
Stay calm when your toddler hits you
Wait for their reaction. It might be tears, a full on tantrum, or they might try to squirm free to do it again. They might be embarrassed or mad. Or they may just stare at you to see what you’re going to do.
My advice is to stay calm and just tell them what you expect. Don’t shame them, or give them a huge lecture. But see it as a teachable moment!
Step 2. Show them what to do instead of hitting.
Thanks to my smart husband’s advice, any time we tell our toddlers not to do something, we try to tell them what they CAN do so there is no confusion. My goal here is to model a gentle behavior for them.
Also we can cheer and clap for them as soon as they do it, which works like magic! Sometimes this looks like:
- Modeling your hand softly rubbing their arm. Since toddlers naturally copy what they see (eventually), you are teaching them what to do instead.
- Waiting for a turn with the toy they want. If your toddler pushes or hits to get what he wants, it’s your job to show them that won’t work.
- Teaching them to say please when they want something instead of hitting to get it. If your toddler can’t talk yet, you can easily teach them please in sign language! It’s simply rubbing a hand on their chest.
Step 3. Praise them like crazy when they are gentle.
Never underestimate the power of clapping and cheering for a toddler desperate for attention when they show self control after trying to push or hit!
Unfortunately, sometimes your toddler may be too emotional to get here right away. You are not a bad mom if so.
Your job in the moment is to keep your kid safe, others safe, and to be firm with what you expect of them. But when my toddler calms down and copies me by gently rubbing my arm, I cheer for him and say, “That’s so nice! So gentle!”
You will help them to want to be gentle and kind just to get all that good attention.
How to teach your toddler to be more gentle
We have tried to teach the word “gentle” as soon as possible by showing them what gentle is with a hand on the arm or cheek while saying gentle.
Starting this, even around 1 years old, helps them to know what you do want from them when the hitting phase starts.
Here’s how I handled my toddler hitting me
My nursing toddler first hit me (with a huge pout face) when he wanted to nurse after I said, “not now”. He didn’t get what he wanted and lashed out with emotion.
In this situation I held his hand while saying in a firm and serious voice, “We don’t hit. That hurts. Show me gentle.”
He squirmed and tried to get free to do it again, now even more frustrated. I held him until he could calm down and show some self control.
At the first sign of a calmer toddler, I said, “That’s better!” And I’d take his hand to lightly stroke my face or arm saying, “gentle” or “that’s polite, good boy”.
No, I wasn’t able to nurse him just because he calmed down…he was still mad. But he wasn’t hitting me.
Side note, I don’t have them practice “showing me gentle” to another kid if they hit, because often times they just need space or to be picked up. (And, I’m afraid of them hitting the kid a second time, especially if it’s a stranger’s kid!)
Stay close by your toddler until they are no longer hitting
If there’s ever a time to be a helicopter parent, it’s when your toddler tries to hit or bite! It’s the fastest way to shut it down.
If your toddler just hit for the first time, or not, you have work to do! Expect they’ll try it again.
The fastest way to put an end to it is to catch it and correct it every single time. If that’s even possible. As a stay at home mom, it’s a little bit easier because I’m with them all day. But I don’t see everything.
If you are not with them all day, you can still be consistent with your expectations when you are around.
Reasons behind the toddler hitting phase
Sometimes toddlers seem to be hitting for no reason other than to see what will happen! Most the time they are mad about something.
Either way, once your precious angel lashes out and hits your chest or walks up to another toddler and whacks them, don’t panic. Hide the smoke that’s coming out of your nostrils.
Toddler hitting normal, and all 3 of my kids have tried it before age 2.
But it can’t continue because it’s not safe. Our job is to teach them boundaries and self control, which in turn makes them happier and you too. Follow these tips for preventing aggressive toddler behavior.
Reasons toddlers hit
They are curious.
What will happen if I…(bite my sibling’s arm or smack mom in the face).
They are upset.
These poor little things have to be taught how to handle emotions. What’s appropriate and what’s not isn’t obvious to them at first.
No self control.
Self control is not natural! It’s taught and also practiced. It’s never too early to start teaching toddlers self control, even at 18 months. It’s how a baby can be taught not to touch a light socket, or refrain from hitting.
Need more attention.
Sometimes toddlers hit because they want you to pay attention to them. Hitting works to get your attention.
My experience is that it always goes well for me when I pay more attention to my kids than less…not saying that I do it enough.
Try praising them for dumb little things that are good, rather than saying mostly “no, stop that, don’t hit, put that down…” You get the idea. I’ve done it both ways and positive attention wins every time!
At some point with each toddler I’ve seen them hit because in all reality they NEED their nap. If this is likely the reason, you just gotta get through it, try not to blame them, and it sucks.
They want what someone else has.
Toddlers have to be taught they can’t hit to get what they want. Maybe it’s a toy at the park. If this happened, it’s really important that they don’t get what they were after unless they do what you ask. Like wait till the other toddler is done playing with it. Or say please, etc.
Should you discipline when a toddler hits?
In addition to the 3 steps mentioned above, (remove them, show them what to do instead, and praise them if they show a gentle touch) using natural consequences has worked really well for us.
If my toddler whacks my chest or hits me when he wants to nurse, I don’t let him nurse.
If he hits his sibling to get a toy, he cannot have a turn until he asks kindly (even if that’s saying please in sign language).
If he pushes a kid out of the way to get up the slide first, I take him off the slide and make him get in line or not slide.
What not to do, speaking from experience
What hasn’t worked at 2 years old (give or take half a year) is time out or speaking harshly. It ends up being a harder problem to get them to stay put or stop howling from a pack n play.
And then they are just mad about being stuck, and you can’t address the hitting that happened 3 minutes ago because it’s been long forgotten.
Try to deal with toddler hitting privately
Another thing that often doesn’t work well for me is to try and work through it while other people are watching.
It opens up the door for a toddler to become embarrassed and feel like they have to perform or test you in front of people (maybe in-laws, siblings, friends, or strangers out in public). Plus, it also puts you on the spot to in an already volatile situation.
When possible, I always to try to take my child to another quiet room so there is no pressure on me or them to have it figured out or “be right” in front of others.
Stay calm, set your boundaries every time, and reassure them that you love them! There are a lot of emotions in that little body.
Have you been hit by your toddler yet? What challenges have you had so far with your toddler? Leave me a comment below and I’ll respond! Also be sure to pin this to read again later 🙂